Dodgers' future looks bright after all

LOS ANGELES -- If you happened to show up at Dodger Stadium on Sunday, which is more than the Pittsburgh Pirates seemed to do on their way out of town, you saw the Los Angeles Dodgers roll to a 15-1 victory, storming their way back to the .500 mark with nine games remaining in their season.

You saw carnage, including eight different Pirates pitchers, not one of whom stuck around as long as two innings. You saw James Loney get five hits and Matt Kemp hit another home run and Juan Rivera drive in four runs.

But if you were looking closely enough -- and you were able to stay awake all the way to the end -- you also saw something else.

You saw hope. Not just for the distant future, when this troubled franchise figures to be under new ownership. I'm talking hope for 2012, a season that is almost certain to begin with Frank McCourt still in charge and the team still in bankruptcy. Enough hope, in fact, to make us forget about all of that, at least every night at 7:10.

In fact, if you have been paying attention at all over these past few weeks -- and if you weren't, don't worry, no one really blames you -- you probably have been seeing these faint flickers for a while.

Things like Dee Gordon proving beyond a reasonable doubt that he is ready to be an everyday, major league shortstop and leadoff hitter. Things like Jerry Sands being a completely different hitter from the overmatched prospect who clearly wasn't ready when the Dodgers promoted him in April and seemed even less ready when they finally demoted him again in June. Things like Javy Guerra, the rookie who became the reliable (and nearly perfect) closer the Dodgers lacked when the season began. Things like rookies Justin Sellers and Russell Mitchell proving they can capably play multiple positions.

"I think we have a good group of guys here," Loney said. "Good guys who have a good time in the locker room. We work hard and try to be the best players we can be. Everybody has their roles and does what they can to fill them. If we do that, we can be a great team."

Loney didn't mean five years from now.

"I think our young guys' development should make us feel good about where the organization is as far as talent and the guys we have coming up," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "We still have to make decisions after looking at them for short stints. Can Dee be successful all the way through [a season]? Just for him, the confidence of being able to get some hits and play the game and get that experience is invaluable. Same thing with Jerry."

This isn't to suggest the third-place Dodgers (76-76), who have no shot at a playoff berth and still trail the division-leading Arizona Diamondbacks by 11 1/2 games in the National League West, can go into next season with exactly the roster they have now and hope to win the division. They already need another dangerous, middle-of-the-order bat, and there is always the chance that other holes could be created this winter if potential free agents such as Hiroki Kuroda and Rod Barajas and Jamey Carroll and Aaron Miles and Juan Rivera choose not to come back.

There are other areas that need to be shored up, as well. One of them is incumbent starter Chad Billingsley (11-10), who even as his teammates built him a double-digit lead still needed 98 pitches to get through five innings and failed to go longer than that for the third time in his past four starts.

But as the Dodgers were knocking a Pirates starting pitcher out early for the third game in a row -- this time, Brad Lincoln (1-2) lasted only 1 2/3 innings -- to run their second-half record to 35-25, we saw just why the future looks reasonably bright.

There was Gordon, reaching base four times in six plate appearances, scoring three runs, laying down a sacrifice bunt that was key to a six-run inning, making a stellar leaping catch at shortstop at a point when the Dodgers led by 11 runs and generally doing what a leadoff man is supposed to do -- he has posted a .361 on-base percentage since coming off the disabled list on Sept. 1.

There was Sands, getting four hits in six at-bats and driving in four runs, three of them with his first home run since his return to the majors on Sept. 6. Since then, he is hitting .390, which is almost twice what he hit (.200) in his previous big league stint, something he attributes to overhauling his mechanics while he was back at Triple-A Albuquerque.

"I knew I had some flaws in my swing [before], but I had been productive with it that way, so it was kind of tough to change it," Sands said. "A change that big, you usually try to do in the offseason. But I knew I had to do it if I wanted to get back here and be successful."

The Dodgers could well open next season with a starting outfield of Sands in left, Matt Kemp in center and Andre Ethier in right. Gordon will almost certainly be the shortstop. Sellers could be a utility man, or he could be the everyday second baseman. Tim Federowicz, who made his first big league start behind the plate just last week, has a chance to become the primary catcher sometime in 2012, although it probably won't be by opening day.

Rookie Nathan Eovaldi, who has a 3.15 ERA in six starts and three relief appearances, can earn a rotation spot in spring training. And Guerra, who has converted 18 of 19 save chances this year and has a 2.11 ERA, is almost certain to begin the season as the closer, with fellow rookie Kenley Jansen -- he of the 15.7 strikeouts per nine innings this season -- as the eighth-inning setup man.

The Dodgers will be much younger at the start of 2012 than they were at the start of 2011, and that comes with its own set of potential pitfalls. But based on what we are seeing now, they also figure to be better next spring than they were this spring.

Will they be championship-caliber? Who knows? But for the first time in months, there seems to be a reason now to hope. And that is something not even a bankruptcy filing can kill.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.